An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 104

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 16, 2020 - Issue 104

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The Furniture History Society has done it again with a superb lecture by Dr. Sebastian Pryke. The very first thing I can say is that I am reminded of all the houses that I have yet to visit. (I still have a great many to write about, but I am getting side tracked by these superb lectures on Zoom.) The newest house to go on my list is Stanway in Gloucestershire. Dr. Pryke's lecture was about a pair of remarkable daybeds at Stanway which were made for a Scottish house called Amisfield which was torn down in 1926. The daybeds are quite spectacular with enormous canopies which relate directly to a design in Thomas Chippendale's first "Director". For those of you who are unaware of the "Director", Chippendale published three editions which were, essentially pattern books, and they were used by cabinetmaking firms throughout the UK. (One even made it to America.) Chippendale's name is therefore used as a "style" for a vast sea of furniture which his shop could not have possibly produced. The daybeds at Stanway, however, were so close to his oeuvre that even the best known Chippendale authority, Christopher Gilbert, made passing mention of them as being by Chippendale. (He did not attribute them, he suggested that they might be by TC.) In any case, these day beds (see the link below to see them), Dr. Pryke believes, are by two Scottish makers, William Mathie and Alexander Peter, and he gave a very convincing argument relating the daybeds to a bed at Dumfries and carving on chairs and mirrors at Dumfries and Hopetoun that are known to be by Peter and Mathie.

The attribution of furniture to a particular maker has never been easy. English makers did not, as a rule, sign their furniture. And we do not know how makers worked between each other meaning that we have little idea of the contracts or sub-contracts* that could be shared between makers. We know that Chippendale, and a number of London makers, made furniture that was shipped to houses throughout the UK, but this is somewhat misleading, particularly given Dr. Pryke's research on the daybeds at Stanway. I might add that for deep dive furniture enthusiasts like myself, the number of cabinetmakers working in the 18th century in England is absolutely astounding. It most definitely was the equivalent to the steel business in the U.S. in the 1950's or the tech business today and that fact makes attributions extremely difficult. I mentioned in my column on Hopetoun that I did not remember the makers of the (superb) walnut and mahogany furniture at Hopetoun, but it is clear that Peter and Mathie worked there and that their work, along with the cabinetmaker James Cullen, who once had a workshop not far from Chippendale's, also made furniture for Hopetoun. It appears to be a fairly tight circle of people working in country houses although, of course, the moment we identify something that is stylistically singular, we tend to see that work all over the place. Indeed, when Dr. Stryke showed a chair back made by Peter for Hopetoun, I immediately realized that I have owned several chairs made by Peter.

It is hard for me not to get excited by the information I get from the Furniture History Society. I know it gets a little esoteric and I need to try and restrict myself as, in fact, I am just as interested in what the design history, the ownership or provenance, the condition, the quality and the inherent history of how and why objects were made and how they may have lived or survived. And I am interested in what is happening in our twenty-first century culture. We are a far less crafts oriented culture than even a hundred years ago, at least in the field of decorative arts. Among the more interesting decorative arts, as far as I can see, is in pottery and glass sculpture. Large scale sculpture is also enjoying its heyday. On a visit to MOMA last week I was surprised to find that I liked the work of Donald Judd, although I had a hard time elevating it to the level that we call art, but I really don't think that matters very much. What matters is whether something grabs and holds your attention and not because it is appalling, but because it gets you thinking. I was pleased to notice that the craftsmanship was good, not 18th century good, but definitely good for the 1960-90 period. But his furniture made me think of Frank Lloyd Wright who reportedly found his own furniture designs terribly uncomfortable. There is still so much to see and I am glad for all the people and places that are informing and enabling this voyage in the world of the decorative and fine arts. 

*I do have one anecdote that I would like to mention regarding a yewwood veneered drum table that I owned many years ago that I, and another dealer, purchased from a sale of the contents of Bette Davis's cottage in Maine. Some local restorer had ruined the patina on the table by stripping and sanding it and I tried my damnedest to make it come back without that much success. Yewwood is one of those woods that should never be stripped--it is almost impossible to get the luminosity of the wood back as only time can make that happen. In any case, as I was fussing around with the table, I found a label on the underside of the top from a maker in Birmingham. I would have taken a photograph except that I could not fit a camera into the drawer space and have enough room to photograph the print on the label. (This was 30 years ago.) I was, however, able to make out the inscription using a mirror and a flashlight and found the maker in the "Dictionary of English Furniture Makers". Those notes are in storage so I can't give you a name, but when I found the entry for the maker in the dictionary, it said that they cooperated with a London firm. There was no further explanation. Of course, cooperation can mean a lot of things, but one thing I would suggest is that certain firms would sub-contract for a number of different reasons, the most important being to fulfill a contract in a timely manner. However, there could also have been makers that specialized in things like veneered yewwood which would have required access to both the yew and good veneer cutters as yew is a tricky wood to work. There is still so much we do not know. These are the daybeds that Dr. Pryke attributed to Mathie and Peter.